Files Show White House Knew Levees Had Failed on First Day

From Associated Press

Twenty-eight government agencies, from local Louisiana parishes to the White House, reported that New Orleans levees were breached Aug. 29, the day Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, documents released Thursday show.

A timeline of e-mails, situation updates and weather reports, pieced together by Senate Democrats, indicates the Bush administration knew as early as 8:30 a.m. EST that day about levee failures that would ultimately lead to massive flooding of the city and its surrounding parishes.

Senate Democrats said the documents raised questions about whether the government moved quickly enough to rescue storm victims once they realized the levees had broken.


White House spokesman Trent Duffy said President Bush and his top aides were aware of the massive flooding -- and less concerned whether it was caused by levee breaches, overtopped levees or failed pumps, all three of which were being reported at the time.

“We knew there was flooding and that’s why the No. 1 effort in those early hours was on search and rescue, and saving life and limb,” Duffy said.

Shortly after the disaster, Bush said, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” He later said his comment was meant to suggest that there had been a false sense of relief that the levees had held when the storm passed, only to break a few hours later.

The administration has said it knew definitively early Tuesday, the day after the storm, that the levees had been breached, based on an Army Corps of Engineers assessment.

Democrats said the documents showed there was little excuse for the tardy federal response.

“The first communication came at 8:30 a.m.,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “So it is inexplicable to me how those responsible for the federal response could have woken up Tuesday morning unaware of this obviously catastrophic situation.”

The first internal White House communication about levee failures came at 11:13 a.m. on Monday Aug. 29 in a “Katrina Spot Report” by the White House Homeland Security Council.

“Flooding is significant throughout the region and a levee in New Orleans has reportedly been breached sending 6 to 8 feet of water throughout the 9th Ward area of the city,” the internal report said.

The documents were released on the eve of Senate testimony by former Federal Emergency Management Agency Michael D. Brown, who was considered the public face of the government’s sluggish response to Katrina.

Brown, now a private citizen, has said his Katrina-related communications with Bush and other White House officials no longer fall under executive confidentiality protections -- a possible signal that his testimony will assign blame elsewhere.

Brown quit FEMA on Sept. 12 after he was relived of his on-site command in the Gulf Coast, and left the federal payroll Nov. 2. He testified in front of a House investigation panel in September.